Embracing the hard parts of a writing project

Usually I blog about what I’ve learned as a writer, hoping to be useful to someone else. But in this entry, I want to write about two problems, one small and one big, that I’m currently wrestling with. I don’t pretend to know what to do about these problems. I do know that often the problematic parts of a story show you where you can do interesting stuff if you can figure out how.

Remember the dog!

The small problem has to do with a dog. My current book is the third one in a trilogy. In the first book, The Wind Reader (due out in September), there are three street kids: Doniver, Jarka, and Dilly. The Wind Reader is Doniver’s story. The second book, due out sometime in 2020, is Jarka’s. This third book is Dilly’s.

In The Wind Reader, I gave Dilly a dog, probably just because I like dogs. You would not believe how hard it is to remember that dog is around and to put him in just about every scene Dilly is in. Because I am not a monster, I can’t kill the dog. But I’ve felt his presence as an annoyance I have to deal with.

Then last week, it occurred to me that I should make use of him to develop either plot, theme, or character, the three things you’re always trying to advance. His presence might allow me to resolve a plot point in some unusual way, for instance. So I put that hope in the notebook I’m keeping for this book and recording ideas as I manage to generate them.

Writing about girls

The larger problem makes me uneasy on a personal level as well as on a writerly one. I have always found it harder to write about female central characters. Perhaps you can’t tell from the names, but Dilly is the only girl in that trio of kids. I am embarrassed by this difficulty. I don’t know why it exists. Maybe boys are easier for me because I can slip into their point of view and borrow the power our culture gives to men. Maybe the girl’s experience is too close to my own so it makes me uncomfortable.

And there are real difficulties in writing about girl central characters. I want to write a strong girl or at least one who becomes strong. But what does it mean to say a girl is strong? Does she have to become a warrior? Does she have to do the things boys traditionally do? I know I want to write about her seizing independence, but I also want her to be able to form relationships.

(On Friday, writer Erin Dionne blogged with questions about what it means to call any character strong. Take a look!)

Last week it occurred to me that because I write fantasy, I have to create a culture, and I might be able to do that in a way that examines opportunities and limits for women and girls an interesting way. Maybe there are rituals aimed at girls. Maybe there are gods or prayers that speak to experiences like pregnancy or menstruation as a sign of adulthood. Again, I entered that notion in my notebook and am thinking about it.

Run toward the hard parts

In general, I’m trying to run toward the hard parts of the story rather than away because I know interesting stuff potentially lies there.

And yet, knowing that doesn’t magically make the hard parts go away. Some days, even saying “I know” feels like too big a claim.

What makes a good first line?

How important are a book’s first lines?

Watch what book buyers do when they pull books out at Barnes and Noble. They most often glance at the front cover, read the blurb on the back or inside flap, and then skim the first page. In Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, a character says she judges a book not by its first lines by its single first line, and the central character then quotes the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, which is, as many of you know, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I don’t believe every book needs a single killer first line. However, it’s worth a writer’s time to edit a first line and the whole first paragraph.

Here are some first lines from books pulled randomly off my shelves. Continue reading “What makes a good first line?”

Making Time to Write

How do writers make time to write? They use a regular schedule.
Make time to actually write

I’ve been reading blogs by writers at various stages of the publication process. They’re anxious because 1) they’re looking for agents, 2) they have an agent but haven’t sold a book yet, 3) they’ve sold a book but the initial sales aren’t what they hoped, 4) their first book(s) sold well but now their agent or editor says they need a big book to keep their career going. And I’m asking myself where’s the happy stop on the writer train? Continue reading “Making Time to Write”

Four Doors into a Book

Readers can prefer plot, character, setting, or language as doors to a book. Open as many doors widely as you can.
Readers enter a book in four ways: plot, character, setting, and language

A while back, I read an article suggesting that readers come to a book through four doors: plot, character, setting, and language. Any door can be more or less open, and different readers will prefer different routes. A book that appeals to a lot of readers probably has several door opened more widely. Continue reading “Four Doors into a Book”

The Problems of Writing Sequels

writing, sequels, series
Some stories need sequels

I’m currently writing a sequel to The Wind Reader, the book coming out from Inspired Quill in September, so I’ve been thinking about sequels and wondering what makes a good one.

Specifically, two questions arise, one having to do with the outer arc of plot and other with the inner arc of character development. Continue reading “The Problems of Writing Sequels”

Plot vs. Chronology: What’s the Difference?

The calendar is ending! We are all doomed!

My middle-grade fantasy, Finders Keepers, turns partly on the struggle to avert a disaster that will occur when the calendar changes to the year 4000. As the story approaches New Year’s Eve, 3999, a plague kills more and more people, earthquakes swallow buildings, and floods threaten to drown the city. All will be lost unless the book’s 12-year-old hero, Cade, is willing to risk his own well-being to save everyone else.

I got the idea for that plot point while I was drafting this book in 2012. The internet was abuzz with speculation over what might happen on 12/21/12, the last date on an ancient Mayan calendar. Speculation that the world would end was so common that NASA did a podcast explaining why it wouldn’t.

The furor reminded me of similar fears when the calendar rolled over to the year 2000, and we endured the so-called Y2K panic. Even some rational people feared civilization would collapse because of computer problems caused by the date change. Given how dependent we are on computers, it was hard to say people had no reason to worry, but a portion of the population entered into the panic with gusto, buying guns and stocking up on food and fuel. They generalized from a computer glitch to a gigantic social meltdown, and in a few cases, the end of the world.

Why do people put so much weight on the change from one page of the calendar to the next? After all, dates are a humanly created and somewhat arbitrary system. Why do we lend them such significance? Continue reading “Plot vs. Chronology: What’s the Difference?”

The value of subtext and how to achieve it

Subtext, how to create subtext
Subtext is below the surface

Lately I’ve been musing on subtext, the things that aren’t explicitly in a text and yet are present by implication. Readers and movie goers like subtext because it allows them to speculate and thus involve themselves in the storytelling. They like it so much that Hollywood has a saying that if the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in trouble. Continue reading “The value of subtext and how to achieve it”

Three ways experts differ from the rest of us

People become experts in three ways
It’s Always Possible to Get Better

How do people become experts in any field, including writing?

I recently read Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. Colvin is an editor for Fortune magazine, so his main interest is in improving corporate performance. However, he writes about the research on the differences between expert and novice performances in areas ranging from sports to music. My focus, of course, was writing and how I might become a better writer.

I like his claim of talent being overrated. I’m not sure I even believe in the concept of inborn talent. Oh, some people do various things better than others. But how do they get to that level of performance? Continue reading “Three ways experts differ from the rest of us”

What Creates a Powerful Character Voice?

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the subtle, hard-to-pin-down subject of voice in fiction. I’m not talking about the writer’s voice, but about that of the point of view character. As a friend of mine once said, a good novel needs three things: interesting characters, something fascinating for them to do, and a strong voice. When I heard that, I knew it was right. But my first thought was, “If only doing that was as easy as it sounds!” My second was, “How can I get a better handle on voice?” Continue reading “What Creates a Powerful Character Voice?”

Three Tips to Avoid Passive Voice and Passive Writing

On one writers board I frequent, people repeatedly warn about using forms of the verb “to be” because that would be “passive voice” and that’s bad writing. Every time I read that, my blood pressure rises a little. Allow me to differentiate between passive voice, emphasis on action, and the delights of characters who shape situations rather than just respond to them.

Passive voice

Warning: Grammar ahead

The terms “active voice” and “passive voice” apply only to transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that pass action from an actor to a receiver. In an active voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the actor. For example, in “John hit the ball,” “John” is both the subject of the sentence and the one who’s doing the hitting. In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action. For example, in “The ball was hit by John,” “ball” is the subject and is being hit.

Passive voice is useful if you want to hide the doer because you can omit the “by” phrase (The ball was hit). It’s also useful if the receiver of the action is more important than the doer (Ross Hall was built…). However, passive voice sentences are slightly but measurably slower to read and harder to comprehend. Continue reading “Three Tips to Avoid Passive Voice and Passive Writing”